Chris Rock teaches a course on ethnography

photo-1America has a tradition of interviewers who can’t really interview.  I think it may start with Johnny Carson.  It got worse with David Letterman.  It may improve with the new lot on late-night.  We shall see.

Of course it’s wrong to ask comedians to interview well.  Their job is to find the funny and pitch the film.  There’s no time to ask a real question, no chance to open a view corridor on the guest.

But surely, we are a little sick of Hollywood “personalities” and would cheer the host who could occasionally crack open that polished candy coating called celebrity for a glimpse of the person within.  Is it too much to ask for the occasional question that goes the heart (perhaps even the soul) of the guest?  What could it hurt?  As prime time TV gets better, surely late-night could improve a little too.

Which brings us the Chris Rock documentary called Good Hair.   This is not late-night, but it could make a real contribution to late-night (and anyone else who wants to learn how to be a better ethnographer).

Good Hair is filled with great interviewing. The camera takes in Rock occasionally and while there is no question that he is aware of the camera and no question that he is sometimes playing to the camera, we catch him listening well (as pictured).

There are several enemies of ethnography.  One of these is self absorption.  Vain people can’t ask a question that has any hope of revelation because they only care about themselves.  They are dark stars, their curiosity never escapes the gravitation field of their own egos.  All questions bend back on the bearer.

The other enemy of ethnography is self dramatization.  Think of John McLaughlin, all bluster and tough mindedness (and no trace of nuance or thoughtfulness).  The interview is merely a platform for the McLaughlin performance, and this is now tedious.

It may be that Chris Rock is already a big enough star that he doesn’t need to commandeer the interview for his own purposes.  In any case, he doesn’t.

In Good Hair, Chris Rock demonstrates one of the really interesting moments of the interview, that moment when the ethnographer isn’t exactly sure what he’s asking and the interviewee is working hard to answer but doesn’t quite know what he/she is answering, and neither party is fully in control of the interview.

A guy like Larry King wants to keep things tidy.  The questions are crisp.  And answer are crisped.  King fields a answer and bangs off the edges, the imprecisions, the glimmers of some other meaning.  And, to be fair, this is the obligation of the old TV, to make things indubitable.

But things have changed.  Imprecision is forgivable.  It is indeed an opportunity.  You the ethnographer are not sure what you are asking.  You can just feel something out there beyond the scope of the interview.  And the interviewee, bless him/her, shares the intuition and is prepared to go looking.  Even if this means being a little vague for a moment.

There are several moments in Good Hair when the interview just floats.  Rock and his respondents are waiting for answers to form.  Sometimes, there’s silence.  What we can hear is people struggling to figure out how to think about this, how to talk about this.  These are delicious moments.  This is how you capture culture.

Clearly, it helps a lot that Rock is talking about a topic (hair) that is not much talked about. It’s a topic surrounded, he discovers, by prohibitions.  People don’t talk about it.  Even to themselves.  Coaxing this kind of knowledge out of its prohibited space is always interesting, and to get in on camera is really superb.

We are a culture enamored of ethnography.  And we are surrounded by bad interviewing and terrible interviewers.  Those of you looking for a short course on ethnography might consider watching Good Hair.

10 thoughts on “Chris Rock teaches a course on ethnography”

  1. There is much to be learned about ethnography from watching other interviewers and picking up on the good and the bad. I never got hooked by the Charlie Rose thing, he was always held up by others as the best at listening, deep conversation, probing, asking the followup questions, instead of letting the personality get away with saying whatever they want. Am I missing out?

    I’ve mentioned Marc Maron to you before. His connection – the initial rapport – seems to temper (or hamper) the performance, the self-involvement. Someone who can show up and meet Maron in the middle will produce a great interview; someone who shrivels under interruptions, digressions, etc. will not do well. I don’t think Marc can tell (unless it goes really wrong like a pissed-off Larry King) and that is almost more painful than the awkward interviews.

    For those of us than are not in the media, we are more held accountable for what we learn than the manner in which we learn it (and least of all the entertainment value of that process). So while it’s easy to criticize as a “professional” I’m glad that my work process is not held to those same standards. Imagine someone watching a compelling interview you experienced and deeming it “boring”! A valid critique if you expect Maron or Walters or Rock.

  2. Well said, Steve. I have had clients sit in on ethnographic interviews and they said later that it was much less interesting than watching paint dry. Happily we don’t need to be entertaining. But there was that moment in industry when everyone had to come to the ethnographic interview the way they went to the focus groups and they did expect to be entertained. A recipe for unhappiness. I said, think of it as optometry. (Is this better or is this better. Is this better or is this better.) What matters is the outcome. You want good work, hire Steve Portigal and get out of his way. Thanks, Grant

  3. Two things…

    Thing One: The “entertainment factor” is an interesting angle, Grant. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Just thinking…

    Thing Two: The International Grant McCracken Society for the Collaborative Reanimation (and time slot creation) of Tom Snider: who wants to join?

  4. Grant, thank you for this nugget. The “dark star” critique, wow, insightful, and funny. Painfully, I know this approach all too well from some with whom I work with closely. I had never put that label on it.

    That dark star experience, alongside reading Steve Portigal’s comments, sparked a thought for me. I have always enjoyed Charlie Rose, though I haven’t made time to watch him in recent years. But during graduate school, I would watch him nightly, and it had a positive impact on developing my own interviewing skills.

    The difference between Charlie Rose and what we do as ethnographers, however, is that Rose rarely attempts to build knowledge, interview by interview, as an evolving and unfolding dialogue. Because of his forum, he usually begins each night from a baseline zero.

    There is, of course, the ethnographic approach that seeks consistency by asking a range of different subjects the exact same set of questions. That same set of questions doesn’t necessarily preclude, but can hinder a more exploratory ethnographic approach, which would allow us to think through problems alongside our subjects. Too often, especially in corporate settings, the approach to the interview is that one person has more information than the other person, and so a leveling of information takes place. Grant, I think you’re pointing to an explanation of the interview where neither side “knows” but rather, through the discussion, both sides are given space to articulate something and strives to know better. I find this approach especially enlightening when studying internal cultural dynamics at organizations.

  5. Michael, great points, and yes, Charlie Rose is a v. useful case study. I like the way he is velvety in the interview until he sees the opportunity he has been setting up, and then he strikes. It’s not “gotcha journalism” but all of a sudden he is a lot less velvety especially if the answer is evasive. Then he lowers his voice and sometimes his gaze, and asks again. The only thing to do in these circumstances is to answer as honestly as you can, or burst into tears and run from the room. Naturally, I would prefer the latter. And one of the things I liked about Rock is the way he listens with a look of something like wonder on his face. I have used this strategy but mostly I am paying the listener a compliment, as if to say, you are saying something esp. interesting! But he’s not doing that, I don’t think. He’s not paying a compliment. He appears to be signaling that he is prepared to hear anything, however “out there” it might be. And, yes, as you say, then you get into that collaborative space where both the ethnographer and the ethnographee (it could be a word) are working together to discover what neither of them can quite say or think at the moment. Anyhow, this “out there” facial expression that Rock uses is new for me. I haven’t seen it or used it. But that will change. Thanks, Grant

  6. That’s one thing to be said for Maron, because he interviews mostly comedians but also actors and musicians, and follows career arcs and failures and inevitably family problems and misspent childhoods and addictions, you start to see some themes emerge (although there are exceptions) around the roots of artistic expression, about various types of expression (e.g., “jokes” versus “storytelling” as you’d see in Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me”) — although this may simply be the interviewer directing the content to reflect his pre-existing insider point of view.

    But your points about the single interview versus the set of data is a challenge in industry as well. When the goal – as it often seems to be – is to get our folks out seeing customers, then the single interview as an empathy exercise seems to suffice. Michael Kronthal just gave an interesting and slightly controversial presentation at BayCHI (I think to be repeated at some UX event but I’m not sure when/where) about an initiative at Yahoo that came from Marissa Mayer: each quarter each engineer will spend an hour observing someone using their product.

    Mayer didn’t set objectives (e.g., increase empathy, or find more usability bugs), she simply proscribed “how” – and so Michael and his team set about developing this enormous program to get something like 6000 people to meet with customers. The result was globally, evenings in campus cafeterias jam packed with people in pairs in front of laptop computers. The pictures were meant to inspire something but they mostly just freaked me out. It was the puppy mill of user research.

    The thinking – and I’m not prepared to say it’s wrong – is that if we can just get people in front of customers once in a while, they will see what’s going on and go off and improve things.

    Other companies will build on the hackathon model and set a day where everyone goes out and visits a customer and then comes back and shares what they heard. But there’s no synthesis, and often very little framing of the inquiry.

    I’ve seen these be hugely impactful from a cultural point of view, but it bears as much resemblance to what we’d call ethnography to Charlie Rose’s show (okay that’s hyperbole but you know what I mean).

  7. Re: Kronthal and the 1 hour/quarter customer exposure… I think there is is real work to be done to alter the default epistemological stance at large in the corporation. The most common question – still! – in corporate research circles is whether the research is generalizable/needs more n/when is the segmentation happening… I think the value of the Mayer/Kronthal intervention is to get engineers to switch from “why isn’t my solution right?” to “is my solution right?” by dint of sheer repeated exposure, and to make the possibility real that a problem poorly framed is a problem poorly solved, that other disciplines have a part to play in it, that they don’t make the same kinds of truth claims as engineers do, and what they find and say is still real.

    if we don’t fix these cultural barriers, we can haz ethnographies but not much else.

    1. Arvind, really well said, thanks, the framing is the key, and we could say that in a sense ethnography is really just an effort to keep looking through and for frames until a. we can see it as the consumer does and b. that becomes the way the engineer does. And that we have crossed the chasm, we have collapsed the distance btw product development and produce consumption, so to say. Thanks, really, really good. Best, Grant

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